Lost and Found: Looking for Love in All the Wrong Places

Laid off from his job at The New York Times, Frank Barry moves back to his childhood home in North Carolina, hoping to stretch his severance pay to cover the time he needs to write a book about the disappearance of his father. High school friend Susan Conrad, whose father also disappeared when she was a child, is already there, trying to recover from her third divorce. Frank and Susan decide to c

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4. Chapter 4

Julia stood at the kitchen sink, scrubbing the dinner and salad plates she had used for that night’s meal and using a brush to scour the inside of her iced tea glass. Then she rinsed the dishes and glass and silverware in water so hot it made her wince before setting them on a worn dishtowel to dry. The two plates, the glass, the fork, the knife, the spoon – washing them and the pots in which she’d prepared dinner was a meditative ritual, one of the only times Julia allowed herself the indulgence of contemplating a life lived alone. She had lived by herself for thirty-five years, since Lisa finished college. She had slept alone for fifty-one years. Having someone in the house again? Well, she just didn’t know.

Sure, she complained that the kids didn’t visit much, didn’t call. In truth, she loved being by herself with the dogs and the cats, interrupted only by the mid-day coffees and after-church lunches with Emily.

Frank’s call had taken her aback. He barely managed a trip to North Carolina every three or four years to celebrate Christmas. Now he wanted to come live with her? She understood about losing the job. But surely there was a way he could make ends meet without moving back into her house. Writing a book? That was news. She guessed that helped explain it. He would need peace and quiet to write whatever he was going to write. She couldn’t image anyone finding peace and quiet in New York City. At least Frank was easier to get along with than Lisa. Like his mother, he was quiet and liked being by himself. Lisa was always arguing, always pushing, always talking that psychotherapy nonsense. Julia knew that Lisa did it to make her feel guilty. Julia also readily conceded, to herself at least, that she wasn’t the best mother. She hadn’t wanted to have kids, but that was what a woman did when she was growing up. In fact, she hadn’t wanted to get married, but that also was pre-ordained. Her mother had nagged and nagged. When Jeffrey started attending her church that summer, freshly graduated from a nearby high school and heading off to college, her mother had practically knocked over a pew in her rush to introduce them. It had been a three-month courtship, and Julia said “yes” when Jeffrey proposed. Looking back on it, she realized his biggest attraction was that he was going to be away at college for four years. Then maybe there would be a stint in the Army. Julia figured she would have lots of time to get used to the idea of having a husband around.

Then Jeffrey came home from college. Then he came home from the Army. Then he was gone forever, leaving her with two kids to take care of.  She’d done the best she could. She’d fed and clothed them, put them through college, and protected them from horrors they would never know, God willing. Horrors that even now, more than fifty years later, she couldn’t bring herself to think about.

Well, she guessed she couldn’t tell her son that he couldn’t come home. What was it Robert Frost had written? “Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.”

The dishes finished, her hands dried and carefully oiled with Cornhusker’s Lotion, Julia headed upstairs to clean Frank’s old room and put sheets on his bed. She hadn’t opened the door to his bedroom for at least a year, and she marveled at how much dust accumulated in that closed-off space. The dust mop and a damp cloth made short work of that. The old maple furniture still was in good shape. Frank’s bed was a twin. Julia had forgotten how small it was. She remembered how fragile Frank used to look, sleeping with his arms curled around his pillow. She used to look in on him every night before she went to sleep until he put a stop to that. Puberty, she guessed. The sheets that fit his bed had cowboys on them. There was a photo of Gene Autry on the wall. Frank had joked about that the last time he’d visited for Christmas. Julia realized now why she’d decorated Frank’s room in a cowboy motif: Somehow she thought the masculine imagery would have an influence on her boy, who too often liked to play with the girls.

Fresh sheets on the bed, the blanket tucked tight, and the pillows fluffed — Julia turned at the doorway and looked back at the room, realizing that she wished little Frank were returning. If she had a chance to do it all over again, could she, would she, have done it differently? She closed the door. Frank wasn’t expected until Tuesday. Tomorrow was Sunday. Time for church. Time for lunch with Emily, who would be as surprised as she had been by this news. She checked her watch. It was nine o’clock. Time for bed.

 

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On Sunday, Julia had the house spotless, as always, when Emily arrived after church, having given Julia a few minutes lead in the church parking lot to get home and get the door open. The Merry Widows the folks in church called them--everyone knew they’d lost their husbands early in their marriages. To Julia and Emily, the bond was stronger than that. Neither had remarried. They were around the same age and had gone through some things together that would make a darned good novel, although they were sworn to secrecy about that. Each had confided in the other a certain sadness at knowing she would never have grandchildren. Sure, Julia hadn’t wanted children. But knowing that the children she had were the last of the Kents? Sometimes, she told Emily, she wondered if that made all that had gone before — her life and those of unknowable earlier generations— ultimately meaningless.  Emily disagreed. But then, Julia noticed, Emily hadn’t been able to offer another reason for being on this Earth than propagating the human race.

When Emily stepped in the door, the first words out of her mouth were: “Is it true?”

“True? Is what true?” Julia asked.

“That Frank’s moving back home?” Emily answered.

“Now, how did you hear about that?” Julia asked. “Goodness, I know there aren’t many secrets in this town. But I just heard from Frank on Friday night, and I haven’t told a soul.”

“Frank emailed Susan,” Emily said. “You know, they were so close in high school. You remember Susan visited him in New York City after her divorce from Jerry? And they emailed each other back and forth.”

Emily had a daughter living at home who was Frank’s age. He and Susan had gone to high school together, and Julia once had hoped they might even marry. Susan had gotten a divorce six months ago, her third. She wasn’t able to have children. She had moved back home, she said, to “take stock.”

Julia smiled, thinking again the perfect solution would be for Frank to marry Susan. Of course she now knew why that had never happened, and never would.

“It’s true,” Julia said. “Not that I understand it. He got laid off at the newspaper, and he wants to come home to write a book. I guess it’s cheaper here than New York City. It’s quieter. Not so many distractions.”

“I’m sure,” Emily said. “But do you think someone who’s been in New York City all those years can settle down in Cumberland County, even if it’s only for a year?”

Julia had asked herself the same question. After all, New York City was a very strange place, and for some reason Frank had taken to it like the proverbial duck to water. He had lived in the East Village part of the city before moving to the Upper West Side. It was a place that shocked Julia on her one and only visit. All those girls with metal rings in their lips and cheeks and eyebrows. The skinny boys in the tight jeans with the tattoos and the Mohawk hairdos and the pale faces. The bearded men on motorcycles. The men dressed like women  —  drag Frank had called it. To a woman as religious as Julia, it was some kind of Sodom resurrected from Palestine and rebuilt in America. Frank loved it.

She would never forget that story he told when friends back home asked him once why he liked New York. It was one of those dull, late December afternoons, he had told them, setting the scene. He was walking to the subway when, up ahead, he heard "Jingle Bells" and saw a crowd bunched around the subway entrance. When he pushed through, Frank said, a metal table on wheels — a hospital gurney — blocked his way. Splayed across it, belly down, head hanging over the edge, body covered with a blanket, was a kid — black, couldn’t have been more than twelve. The kid, Frank said, was picking out the Christmas song with his tongue on a portable electric organ. His mother stood next to him with a cup, begging for change.

“That’s why I live in New York,” Frank had said with a grin. “Where else in this country are you going to see a sight like that?” Julia winced at the memory.

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